In preparation for Thanksgiving, I have been reading a masterful book entitled, The Art of Dining, A History of Cooking & Eating, by Sara Paston-Williams. The book was published by The National Trust of Britain in 1993, and it covers all aspects of food in Great Britain from the Middle Ages until the late Victorian Period.
The author is both a cook and an historian, bringing brilliant qualities of each profession to her task, as well as presenting numerous programs on the Channel 4 network in Britain, relative to food. She writes from her home in Cornwall. For this volume, actually quite a heavy tome packed with fascinating information, she conducted research in the archives of many National Trust historic properties across Britain.
The book’s photography of art, architecture and food is splendid, making the reader hungrier with the turn of every page. The medieval section is a fine beginning, but her treatment of the 18th century I found to be the most engaging. Paston-Williams illustrates that period with a picture of the magnificent formal dining room designed by the architect Robert Adam for Keddleston Hall in Derbyshire, along with many other beautiful scenes.
The book is as much about architecture as it is about food. Significantly, at many great houses, year around fruit was available from the elaborate conservatories, which we call greenhouses, that enabled the owners to enjoy citrus, herbs and vegetables in the middle of the bitter cold English winter.
Those buildings were massive brick structures with glass panels to capture the sunlight all day long. When the conservatory concentrated on citrus, it was called the “orangery.” The trees grew and produced heartily in such ideal climates, despite the frigidly cold outside.
For me, one of the book’s most revealing insights came with her definition and description of syllabub. Decades ago, without knowing what syllabub was, I acquired a Staffordshire syllabub cup. I soon learned how to describe the drink, but only came to understand how it is made thanks to Paston-Williams’ explanation. Syllabub is a first cousin of eggnog.
It consists of a heavy cream base, the peel and juice of one lemon, caster sugar, which in America we call superfine sugar, a sprig of fresh rosemary and either medium dry sherry or white wine. Our ancestors knew sufficiently well that it would be a rich and tasty drink, hence the syllabub cup makes a demitasse compare favorably in size to a quart jar.
A work could not treat food without also covering hunting and fishing. Paston-Williams previously had written a book that she entitled, Fish, Recipes From A Busy Island. In The Art of Dining, she discusses hunting parties and the quarries they brought back to feed housefuls of guests.
In Britain, the traditional Christmas dinner is not a turkey, but rather a goose. Gladys should be happy that she is living in America! One need only remember Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol to understand the English enthusiasm for members of her gaggle.
A great treat for the 18th-century English was hartshorn jelly, which would follow the major meat course of a dinner. As it was ammonia-based, it was made with ground-up deer antlers and flavored with calves’ feet. Later, oranges and lemons came to be added to the mixture.
As Thanksgiving dawns over us tomorrow, we can be grateful for some of the advances that have been made in modern cuisine. I am pleased that my Good Wife will not be spending the day today grinding antlers or curing calves’ feet to get the necessary ammonia for our dessert. In lieu, I shall be thinking of some of Sara Paston-Williams’ other recipes, and how I delicately can suggest that they be introduced into our kitchen. Her book is a wonderful treat in itself.